This year Bellevue School District’s award-winning Spanish immersion program, which begins at Puesta del Sol, marks its 30th anniversary.

With its seed planted in 1986, the Spanish immersion program started out small, with limited materials and only two classes per grade level.

“The focus was different in the beginning,” said Toni Marquez former Puesta del Sol teacher, who retired last year.  “We were starting and building,” she said.

Three decades later the program has grown to nearly three or four classes in every grade level, curriculum materials are in Spanish, there is collaboration within the program and the staff is dedicated to continuing its hallmark high caliber teaching and learning.

“I live in another school district, very close to a school, but I choose to be in the Bellevue School District because I love the Spanish Immersion Program,” said Debbie Hinton, second grade teacher at Puesta del Sol. “It is Spanish all day long.  I am speaking Spanish just as I would speak to my neighbor,” she said.

Students who attend Puesta del Sol have the opportunity to continue their language acquisition by taking International Spanish Academy (ISA) classes while attending Tillicum Middle School and Newport High School.  This year the ISA program expanded to Sammamish High School.  As they progress through the program, students have the opportunity to earn the seal of bi-literacy, as well as the ISA diploma.

Along with content mastery of the district curriculum, students at Puesta del Sol focus on each of the language components and modes of communication – listening and reading comprehension, speaking and writing.  When the students move to the secondary level their Spanish learning is more about grammar and the structure of the language so that their reading and writing skills are polished.  Students transition from having all classes, aside from English, in Spanish, to having two classes in Spanish in middle school, and one in high school.  The program takes high schoolers through a series of four courses exploring all levels of Spanish language, literature and culture.

Over the years, the immersion and ISA programs have been a model for a variety of visitors from all over the United States.  Examples include, OSPI bringing teachers from around the state to Tillicum and Puesta del Sol welcoming observers from San Antonio, Texas.

Additionally, both the immersion and ISA programs have received a number of awards including both Puesta del Sol and Tillicum placing second in the North America ISA School of the Year competition in 2016 and 2015, respectively.

While building a fondness of the language students also excel academically as they develop their fluency and teachers are touched by students’ progression.

“I never stop getting emotional when I see the students expressing themselves so eloquently in the language,” said Maria OCampo, Tillicum social studies teacher.

Student Experiences

Students at Puesta del Sol spend 90 percent of their school day in Spanish with one hour English language arts instruction starting in third grade.

Fifth grader Sofie Fenstermacher said, “Learning in Spanish is more of a challenge, which I like.” Fenstermacher hopes to one day become a teacher, so she believes knowing Spanish will be beneficial for her.

As students continue on to middle and high school together, they build a tight knit community.

Nate Moore, an eighth grader at Tillicum, appreciates having this community, and said that it’s fun to stay with friends that you have known for a long time.  He chose to be in the immersion and ISA program because he saw being bilingual as a good opportunity.  Although college is a few years away, Moore plans to minor in Spanish.

The program impacts students at all grade levels and high schoolers are able to recognize the benefits as they begin to plan for life beyond graduation.

Sammamish freshman Jaylnn Youngs said, “I think if you stay in the program it has huge benefits because you know so much more of the language and you get to know the people so much better – I think it’s a great opportunity.”

Youngs plans to become a missionary so she believes her proficiency in the language will help her excel in this work.

Newport senior Betty Reed likes the opportunities the program gives her.

“Now that I’ve taken the DELE test – I’ve passed a proficiency test so I can go to Spanish speaking countries and possibly get work or go to schools there,” she said.

Newport Academic Coaches Return to Puesta del Sol

Student with Academic Coach
Academic Coach from Newport High School works with 2nd grade student.

Each spring, Newport seniors return to their roots at Puesta del Sol as academic coaches for all grade levels and subjects.

“We just help make sure the kids are kept up to speed and we’re an extra set of hands for the teacher,” said Newport senior Sami Springman.  “We really get to be an example for the kids on what they’re going to reach when they come out of Puesta.”

Springman is happy for the opportunity to be an academic coach and come full circle.

“I feel like I get to see the whole process again” she said.  “Honestly I didn’t really appreciate Spanish immersion until I realized all of the opportunities it gave me.”

Springman has traveled to a number of Spanish speaking countries and credits her fluency and connection to the different cultures during her travels to her time in the immersion program throughout her schooling in Bellevue.

“I rarely go to a country where I cannot speak Spanish because it’s just such a gift that I’ve been given,” said Springman.  “It just gives you more of an opportunity to meet different people.”

Thinking about next year and her future Springman knows that without a doubt, she will minor in Spanish, and eventually she may study or work abroad.

Continuing to Grow and Develop

Sammamish Students
9th grade Spanish class at Sammamish High School

The program expansion to Sammamish High School last fall was a natural fit, as the school has a number of heritage Spanish speakers.  Sammamish also has a sizable amount of students who live within the attendance area who are ISA students.

“This is a very logical place for the immersion students to be because they have so much opportunity. The whole point of language immersion is to have skills in the world to connect with people in the world through the cultural lense of those people – that’s what the language provides you,” said Sammamish Spanish Teacher, Amos Wiedmaier.  “So here, we have a very large number of Spanish speakers, our ISA kids will sit next to them in math and science classes, and they have opportunities to make international connections here.”

Rather than having ISA only classes, Sammamish intermingles the heritage Spanish speakers and ISA students in their Spanish classes so that they learn from one another and build more connections.

“We want the ISA kids to really use their Spanish and not be isolated, but rather engage with people from a variety of cultures,” said Wiedmaier.

The curriculum will continue to evolve just as the program does at Sammamish.  Currently, the team is looking at creating a new freshman course for next year focused on the pillars of international studies, said Wiedmaier.  It will have a language arts component and flexibility because students will come in with different levels of Spanish knowledge and different linguistic needs.

With the growth and development of the program, one constant that teachers across all levels in the program recognize and appreciate is the value that the immersion and ISA program brings to the students.

For students who stay in the program, Jason Benda, a Spanish teacher at Newport said, “I think it set them apart historically and culturally, being that our country has been very monolinguistic.  Spanish is becoming more and more prevalent.  By being bilingual, these kids have a leg up on that.”

Puesta del Sol is hosting a 30 year anniversary celebration on Saturday, June 3, 2017. The event will be held from 1 p.m. – 5 p.m. at Puesta del Sol. There will be student performances, alumni classroom tours, food trucks and more. All students, teachers, alumni and friends of Puesta del Sol are welcome to join in the festive afternoon. Add it to your calendar.

The Bellevue School District acknowledges that we learn, work, live and gather on the Indigenous Land of the Coast Salish peoples, specifically the Duwamish and Snoqualmie Tribes. We thank these caretakers of this land, who have lived and continue to live here, since time immemorial.